There has been a paradigm shift and all signs are indicating that global consumer culture is changing. In this new consumer culture, there is a growing realization that consumption does not necessarily equal happiness. And happiness is now being linked more intrinsically to sustainability.
The economics of happiness and the importance of happiness to society is not a new concept. Aristotle famously wrote that “happiness depends upon ourselves” and frequently discussed happiness in relationship to ethics. In the United States, the “pursuit of happiness” is placed on equal footing with life and liberty in the Declaration of Independence.
That said, while the foundation for a society that values happiness has been established, the post-Industrial Revolution experience in the West has been largely characterized by consumerism and materialism, with the takeaway message that happiness is obtained vis-à-vis the owning of things. The sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote about “conspicuous consumption” in 1899 and by 1913 the idiom “keeping up with the Joneses” was practically a household phrase.
For KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyiniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media and the highly anticipated Sustainable Brands conference, a revolution of interconnectedness is afoot. “What we see is that there is a redefinition of value going on the world right now,” she told me in a phone conversation. “There’s a growing realization that the principles that have guided society, marketers, and brands for the past 100 years have led us to the series of crises which we’re in now, from overconsumption of resources to ultimately a depletion of happiness.”
Much of this shift, Skrzyiniarz theorizes, can be attributed to a growing shift towards system thinking. “Society is increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of systems. We are on the whole more emotionally connected and as consumers are more aware of the factors that impact the larger system – from economic drivers, to fair trade and labor practices,” says Skrzyiniarz.
This shift is resulting in significant disruption in the marketplace, such as the rise of collaborative consumption. It’s a “what’s mine is yours” economic model that facilitates swapping, bartering, peer-to-peer sharing and repurposing of existing things. It’s crowdsourced, with grassroots-origins and also remarkably successful commercially as consumers are increasingly choosing businesses that enable human touch points.
Sustainability – and branding – are integrated issues where everything in a company must be aligned. “When we understand the world from a systems perspective, rather than in silos, we understand that sustainable brands cannot be developed in isolation,” says Skrzyiniarz. Branding should first be “who you are, what you do, how you do it and then, after all that, how you talk about it.”
Integration sounds daunting. My college calculus professor used to describe the operation of integration as “scary addition.” He described it as such: imagine that you are looking at the horizon and want to calculate the area beneath it. Integration is breaking the horizon up into recognizable shapes and then adding them back together. It requires seeing the whole as a sum of parts.
But there is tremendous opportunity to not only understand the world beneath the horizon, but to also make it better.
Let me know your thoughts here or at @Measure4What.